The Phony Disease That Helped Researchers Identify Bach's (Purported) Body

Rischgitz/Getty Images
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Three days after Johann Sebastian Bach died from a stroke in July 1750, his body was laid in an oak coffin and hauled to a cemetery outside the city walls of Leipzig, Germany. Like many burials back then, no headstone was placed to mark Bach’s plot. Within years, the exact location of the composer’s grave had faded from memory.

Bach died a respected musician, but was by no means a superstar. That would change over the coming decades: An 1802 biography about his life—as well as a burgeoning interest in the musical works of the past—would launch him to the top of the newly formed classical music canon. Bach grew to become a source of national pride, and musical pilgrims worldwide were hungry to visit his grave to pay him homage. In 1894, a group set out to find where, exactly, he was buried.

Rumor suggested that Bach’s corpse lay six paces from the south door of St. John's Church, but nobody was certain. “The oral tradition apparently originated in 1894 from a 75-year-old man, who in turn was informed about the location 60 years earlier by a 90-year-old gardener employed at the graveyard,” write Richard H.C. Zegers and several other scholars in the Medical Journal of Australia [PDF]. That same year, Pastor F. G. Tranzschel, the vestry chairman at St. John’s, ordered an excavation based on that information.

Dr. Wilhelm His Sr., a Leipzig professor of anatomy, served as the dig’s leading egghead. As workers dug into the slop and mud of the church graveyard, His inspected the skeletons to see if the bones resembled those of a 65-year-old man. He described the scene as “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” (To say the least, this was not history’s most scientific excavation.)

Thankfully, there was one telltale sign to look for: Most of the coffins in the cemetery were pine, but Bach’s bones were supposedly entombed in a casket of pricey oak. The crew found at least three such coffins. One contained a young woman (definitely not Bach), a second contained remains that had been smashed to splinters (hopefully not Bach), and a third contained a beautifully preserved skull (Hallelujah?). In the words of musicologist and Bach expert David Yearsley at Counterpunch, Wilhelm His believed this skeleton “belonged to a man of distinction.” He studied the cranial cavity and even attempted to reconstruct the skull's face, later claiming in a book that this "strange skull of very distinct and by no means ordinary forms" belonged to J.S. Bach. Shortly after, the skeleton was laid in a crypt below the altar of St. John's Church.

But there was always a lingering doubt that His got it wrong. In 1949, Bach’s purported skeleton was exhumed and later reburied in St. Thomas Church in downtown Leipzig (where the composer once worked as Kapellmeister, or music director). Before this celebrated second burial, researchers decided to give the bones a second look. The skeleton was re-examined by the oral surgeon Wolfgang Rosenthal, who claimed to see proof of Bach’s identity not in the skull—but in a region, well, slightly south.

Rosenthal was intrigued by abnormal bony growths, called exostoses, around the skeleton’s pelvic ring, as well as growths at sites of muscle and ligament attachment, called enthesophytes, near the arms. Both are signs of occupational stress, common in physically active people who make repetitive motions day-in and day-out.

Rosenthal wondered: Could a lifetime of organ-playing cause somebody to develop these bony growths? After all, an organist must regularly make awkward, repetitive foot and arm movements—especially if he or she practices a lot. To test his hypothesis, Rosenthal x-rayed the hips of 11 professional organists organists who, like Bach, had been playing since childhood. In a paper published more than a decade later, he claimed that all of them showed signs of the same bony growths as Bach's purported bones. Rosenthal came away convinced that not only had he re-confirmed the identity of the skeleton, he had discovered a new medical ailment: Organistenkrankheit, or organist’s disease.

Unfortunately for Rosenthal and fans of weird diseases with fun German names, the surgeon may have been mistaken. In 2007, researchers at the Academic Medical Center of Amsterdam tried to replicate Rosenthal's experiment, this time adding a control group of non-musicians. According to their report in the Medical Journal of Australia, of the 12 church organists x-rayed, only 33 percent had growths near the pelvis. Damningly, 75 percent of the non-organ-playing control group also showed an incidence of bony hip growths.

While the researchers admitted that their sample size was small, their work does appear to throw a wrench in Rosenthal's hypothesis. “Our findings do not support the existence of Orgnistenkrankheit as a condition among organists,” the research team wrote. Furthermore, they concluded that "given the uncertainties about the burial site, His's controversial facial reconstruction, and Rosenthal's irreproducible Organistenkrankheit, it is unlikely that the remains are those of Bach." Evidence, it seems, that hips really can lie.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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14 Facts About The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Its 45th Anniversary

Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Many movies can claim the title “cult classic,” but few have ever embodied that term quite like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. First written as a small stage production by an out-of-work actor who wanted to pay homage to the B movies he loved, the film version flopped at the box office when it premiered in 1975. Then, as midnight showings continued, its following grew, and grew, and grew.

People don’t just watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they live it—complete with costumes, props, and very vulgar audience participation. Since its release in 1975, it has remained the quintessential cult classic. So, to celebrate more than four decades of Absolute Pleasure, here are some facts about the film.

1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show began as a way to keep an unemployed actor busy.

What would eventually become The Rocky Horror Show, and later The Rocky Horror Picture Show, began as a way for Richard O’Brien “to spend winter evenings” when he wasn’t working as an actor. O’Brien poured his love of science fiction and horror films into the initial Rocky Horror songs, and eventually he showed the material to director Jim Sharman while they were working on a play together. Sharman took a liking to it, and convinced London’s Royal Court theater to give him a few weeks in the venue’s tiny Upstairs theater to stage a production. It played for only a few dozen people a night, but eventually grew a following. Not bad for something that started as the equivalent “doing the crossword puzzle” for O’Brien.

2. Richard O’brien originally wanted to play the role of Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As the production took shape, O’Brien knew he wanted to co-star as the motorcycle-riding Eddie, a role that ultimately went to Meat Loaf. Sharman, though, saw O’Brien in the role of the mysterious handyman, Riff Raff, and O’Brien respected and trusted his director enough that he agreed.

3. Columbia and Magenta were originally one character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

As the stage play began casting, Sharman was hoping his friend, pop star Marianne Faithfull, would play Frank N. Furter’s female counterpart, but Little Nell had already been cast in the production. So Sharman and O’Brien reworked the role into two parts: Magenta and Columbia. When the time came to cast Magenta, Faithfull was already off on a tour of India, so Patricia Quinn was cast. Quinn took the role, despite having almost no lines, just so she could sing the lead song: “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” which she called “the best song I’ve ever heard.”

4. Little Nell was cast in The Rocky Horror Picture Show for her tap dancing skills alone.

“Little Nell” Campbell had a rather interesting audition for the role of Columbia. At the time the stage production was getting underway, she was working as a soda jerk in London. Jim Sharman heard that she would perform tap dances while serving ice cream, and took some collaborators to see her. She danced for them, and won the role.

5. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank N. Furter originally had a German accent.

Tim Curry, Richard O'Brien, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Taking a cue from the character’s name, Tim Curry began the stage production of The Rocky Horror Show by playing Frank N. Furter as German. Then, one day, he heard a woman on a bus speaking with a particularly posh accent and decided, “Yes, he should sound like the Queen.”

6. “Science Fiction/Double Feature” had a different singer for the film.

As previously mentioned, Patricia Quinn took the Magenta role just so she could sing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” on the stage, but when it came time to film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it was decided that O’Brien should sing the song instead. Quinn wasn’t happy, but she did get a small consolation: The iconic lips that sing the song in the opening credits are hers.

7. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s director agreed to a smaller budget in order to keep the original cast.

According to Sharman, 20th Century Fox offered him “a reasonable budget” if he would cast “currently fashionable rock stars” in the lead roles for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sharman lobbied instead to keep the original stage cast (with some exceptions, like the addition of Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), and instead got a “modest budget” and a very tight shooting schedule. Sharman now calls the decision “crucial” to the film’s cult success.

8. Much of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s look was inspired by an actual rotting mansion.

While preparing to shoot the film, set designer Brian Thomson kept hearing about “the old house” near Bray Studios outside of London. When he finally got to see the house, a 19th-century mansion called Oakley Court, he realized it was exactly what they needed for the film, in part because its owners had essentially left it to rot (they wanted to demolish it, but it was designated as a historic site).

“The minute we saw it, we realized that this gave us the basis for the whole look of the movie,” Thomson said.

Because of its proximity to Bray Studios, the house has also appeared in a number of other films, including several from the legendary Hammer Studios line of horror movies. It has since been restored, and is now a hotel.

9. A large portion of The Rocky Horror Picture Showwas supposed to be in black and white.

While conceiving of the film’s overall look, Sharman, Thomson, and company originally decided that the film’s opening act should be shot entirely in black and white, and that the first color in the movie should be Frank N. Furter’s red lips when he appeared on the elevator. The idea was that Brad and Janet were living in a bland world, and when they met Furter they would be shown something much more colorful. Ultimately, the studio rejected the idea.

10. The reveal of Eddie’s body genuinely shocked the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

For the iconic dinner party scene, in which Furter reveals that his guests have been dining on Eddie, Sharman elected to tell only Tim Curry—who had to pull away the tablecloth to reveal Eddie’s corpse—what the surprise of the scene was. He wanted the rest of the cast to be genuinely shocked.

11. A cardboard model was used to make the house fly in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

For the climactic scene in which Riff Raff and Magenta launch Furter’s house back to Transylvania, Thomson originally began constructing an elaborate model of the house. In the end, though, there wasn’t enough time or money to produce a full-scale model for the moment, so a cardboard cutout of the house was used. As Thomson later pointed out, you can still actually see the real house in the background of the shot.

12. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s famous audience participation was inspired, in part, by boredom.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a flop when it was originally released in 1975, but as midnight showings continued it developed a rabid cult following with a penchant for shouting at the screen as the film played. Brian Thomson first witnessed this phenomenon at New York’s Waverly Theater in 1977, and when he asked what was going on, this was the reply:

“We thought it was pretty boring, and we thought if we yelled back [it would be more fun].”

13. Tim Curry was once kicked out of a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for being an “impostor.”

As the film’s cult following grew, Tim Curry was living in New York, just down the street from the Waverly Theater, so he often witnessed fans going to midnight showings in costume. Intrigued, he called the theater, told them who he was, and asked if he could attend. The theater initially didn’t believe him, until he actually showed up one night. “Finally I showed up, and they sort of believed me and took me in,” Curry later told NPR.

While fans were delighted by Curry’s presence, the theater staff still wasn’t convinced, and an usher grabbed him, called him an “impostor,” and threw him out. Curry then took out his passport to prove he was the real deal, but declined to go back into the theater after the staff apologized.

14. Princess Diana was a major The Rocky Horror Picture Show fan.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has many famous fans (Meat Loaf and Tim Curry actually met Elvis Presley at a Los Angeles performance of the stage production), but perhaps none more impressive than Diana, Princess of Wales. Once, while doing a theater performance in Austria, Curry was informed that the Princess wanted to meet him. When they met, she told him that the film “quite completed my education,” apparently flashing a “wicked smile” as she did so.

Additional Source:
The Rocky Horror Double Feature Video Show

This story has been updated for 2020.